Ever timely, Oscar Wilde’s brilliant comedies are not so much about 19th century drawing-room society as they are about the human heart in all its folly. The 100-year-old “An Ideal Husband,” the writer’s sharp dissection of the line between public and private life, would be provocative and entertaining regardless of current events, and it undoubtedly will have extra resonance for audiences so soon after President Clinton’s “confession.” Yet it is precisely a stronger emphasis on the story’s romantic aspects, over its political themes, that this otherwise solid production is lacking.
As the catalyst in this story of a marriage and a political career on the brink of scandal, Laura Wernette portrays Mrs. Cheveley as a woman who knows she’s got it and loves to work it, arriving on the London scene in heart-stopping velvet with blackmail on her mind. (Designers John Patrick and Shon LeBlanc make excellent use of rich fabrics in their charac-ter-defining sets and costumes.)
Her target is Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs Robert Chiltern (Chip Heller), an upstand-ing politician known for his honesty and progressiveness. But Mrs. Cheveley holds the key to Chiltern’s undoing, proof that he began his career in less than pure fashion; in return for silence, she demands that he lend government support to an investment scheme he knows to be fraudulent.
One of the questions the play poses is whether we are strictly defined by our pasts. In Mrs. Cheveley’s case, it seems she still is the thieving schoolmate Lady Chiltern (Melissa Hanson) knew and despised as a child; her girlish reaction to being caught in her own scheme by the ever-resourceful Lord Goring is quite perfect.
Goring is the other key ingredient here, the dandy with a heart of gold and a head full of common sense (and who is a mouthpiece for Wilde). As played by Todd Nielsen, he disap-points at first for not being the dashing bachelor figure one might expect (and usually find) in the role. But Nielsen brings layers of rue and fatigue to this charming man-about-town, a world-weariness that speaks volumes about the pain he hides behind a predilection for “trivial” boutonnieres and philosophy disguised as small talk. Goring’s pain is evident during confrontations with his dignified but daffy father (Charles Howerton), who refuses to recog-nize his son’s individuality.
Goring’s love interest (Stacey Scotte) banters flirtatiously with him, conveying a pleasing sense of youthful infatuation and silliness, but the actress and director Nick DeGruccio miss the deeper longing that would imbue certain fourth-act events with poignancy and make them emotionally satisfying. Love, after all, is the heart of the matter here, as incisive as Wilde’s observations may be about other matters — political ambition, the media circus that “delights” in scandal and the willful shallowness of the upper classes (epitomized by Lady Markby, a deliciously ditzy turn from Toni Sawyer).
Hanson and Heller portray the central couple with a powerful mutual affection and admi-ration, but are perhaps rather one-note: he too much blustery desperation, his frantic delivery sometimes swallowing lines whole, and she all befuddlement over the events unfolding around her. When the lily-white Lady Chiltern turns to scheming in the final act (for good reasons, of course), the irony is lost in the matter-of-fact way she pursues resolution. But the damning constriction of moral rectitude comes through loud and clear when these two charac-ters go to battle to maintain a marriage and a way of life in the face of Mrs. Cheveley’s threat.
And there’s a wonderfully giddy and expected moment from Heller when Chiltern switches from pathos to false composure in a heartbeat; more such glimpses of the schism between the man and his mask would be welcome.
The excellent cast admirably withstood a failed air-conditioning system on opening night (audience members received hand fans and bottled water), and all supporting players were fine, with Maura Knowles and Alison Shanks providing lovely singing during set changes.
While director DeGruccio’s interpretation of “An Ideal Husband” doesn’t achieve the transcendent magic of some recent productions, it is an effective, heartfelt staging of a comedy gem.